Eye Candy

A colorful lobby seen from the street creates massive curb appeal for Highland Park apartments in Washington, D.C.

The boutique hotel aesthetic has moved from the fringes to mainstream, gradually changing consumer expectations of what a hotel should look like. It’s also moving into other types of real estate from office buildings to apartment buildings.

Bethesda, Md.-based Donatelli Development has embraced the boutique hotel look. Like the developer’s other properties, Highland Park—developed with Gragg + Associates—is loaded with personality. It differentiates itself in a number of ways, including a bold, floor-to-ceiling LED light show with continually changing colors that create drama.

“It’s a major wow factor,” says Christopher J. Donatelli, president, Donatelli Development. “Because the façade of the building is all glass, the LED wall really lights up the street at night. A lot of people are drawn to it.”

Donatelli adds that in a ground up building, there is tremendous opportunity to be creative. Differentiation is key, and with this 229-unit rental property in Washington’s newly revitalized Columbia Heights neighborhood, the developers saw a real opportunity to go modern. “It’s a bit of South Beach with a little bit of a night club feel. Given that many of the residents are very social and eager to have events in the building, it’s been a hit,” adds Donatelli.

Highland Park is a public-private partnership with the District of Columbia, which owns the land. Twelve acres were sitting vacant right around the newly opened Columbia Heights Metro station. The city put the land out for bid and held design competitions with the community before selections were made. Donatelli Development now has four new transit-oriented, mixed-use projects above Washington, D.C.’s Green Line.

Hard construction costs for Highland Park were around $60 million, with interior design costs approximately $1 million (not including the furniture). While it does cost more to build this caliber of product, Donatelli thinks it’s money well-spent. “It’s prime property right above the Metro, and you only get one opportunity to build a long-term asset,” says Donatelli. “We build to hold. I think it’s the best strategy.”

Efficiencies in other areas enable the investment in the amenity and common spaces. “This is a competitive environment. Renters have choices, and the project needs to really stand out. We are at above 95 percent leased,” adds Donatelli.

According to Julie Smith, president, Bozzuto Management, “The LED light wall is truly unique and our residents are enthusiastic about having a feature that no other community in this area has. It regularly draws in prospects walking down the street,” she adds, “especially in the evening when it illuminates the entire lobby—an excellent example of innovative curb appeal.”

Smith notes that residents also enjoy Highland Park’s lobby and common areas because they exude a “lounge” vibe that’s conducive to socializing. “All the amenity spaces are bright and modern, and most importantly, well maintained, resulting in residents who take pride in their community,” says Smith.
“While a well-designed community is certainly easier to market in today’s economy, having truly distinctive design elements that other communities don’t is a memorable differentiator that really sets you apart from the rest.”

In April, the Columbia Heights neighborhood and the Government of the District of Columbia were named winners of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) “Awards for Excellence: The Americas Competition.”

The Highland Park project comprises 291,000 sq. ft. and consists of 102 one-bedrooms, 54 two-bedrooms, 12 two-bedrooms with den, and 61 two-level loft units. Units range in square footage from 539 sq. ft. to 1,361 sq. ft. and monthly rents range from $1,780 to $3,900, with the average rent at $2,779.

Twenty percent of the units at Highland Park are reserved for affordable housing (5 percent of units leased to those with income below 30 percent of AMI; 5 percent of units leased to those with income between 30 percent-60 percent of AMI; 10 percent of units leased to those with income between 60 percent-80 percent of AMI).

Capturing the market with LED

Lead architect Torti Gallas and Partners drew from Art Deco style for the exterior of Highland Park to reflect the traditional face of Washington, D.C. apartment buildings. The apartment community has street-level retail and underground parking, with direct Metro access.

“Certainly there has been more interest in doing some upscale amenities in apartment buildings,” says Laurence Caudle, AIA, associate principal and director of housing, Hickok Cole Architects, the firm selected for the common areas including the lobby, lounge, fitness center, mailroom, corridors and elevator cabs.

“Toward the end of the boom here it got very competitive. Everyone was upping the ante in terms of design. Usually it’s a modern look [that’s favored]—particularly in the downtown areas in D.C. Even the podium low-rise construction [projects] on the outskirts are starting to catch up, and they’re projecting a less suburban style.”

According to Eric Inman, R.A., Hickok Cole Architects, the lobby design for Highland Park was ultimately inspired by one piece of furniture—the translucent Aarnio Bubble Chair that hangs in the window. Donatelli liked this iconic piece and thought the desired curb appeal could be achieved by lighting it from below (with the idea that this would be seen from outside). The concept for the LED wall evolved from this idea.

“Thinking really large, we got the idea of how cool it would be if the whole back wall would change color,” explains Inman. The color-changing LED products aren’t new to the market, but they have finally become more affordable. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we have the technology to do the whole wall?’” recounts Inman. “We did a lot of research with the newer LED products and decided to go with that bold move.”

Caudle adds, “The lobby is a minimalist design. We let the furniture—and the light wall—create the aura for the space and lend a pop of color. Apart from those elements, the rest of the space is very white. The second-most expensive element is the very large fish tank at the end of the corridor connecting the lobby with other common areas. Its upkeep is expensive, but it’s a hit with residents.”

To comment on this feature, email Diana Mosher at dmosher@multi-housingnews.com.